Harrisburg, Pennsylvania – The need for many to get visitor’s visas to the USA, to attend the Pennsylvania 2015 MWC Assembly in Harrisburg, has long been a concern for many planners and participants. For more than a year, the MWC Visa Task Force (VTF) has been making preparations.
Now that it is April 2015, and only a few months to go before the Assembly in July, we can say that obstacles and struggles are definitely present but are less than we anticipated. We are expecting a well-attended Assembly.
We knew from the beginning that about 1,000 people, from 44 countries where USA visitor’s visas are required, would have to work hard to come to Pennsylvania 2015. Looking forward, we noted three arenas of struggle. Would enough people want to take on the expense and anxiety to get a visa and make the needed travel arrangements? Would MWC logistic and financial support be forthcoming to make this happen? and Would the public systems for national passports and USA visitor’s visas be supportive?
On each of these fronts we have been frequently surprised and blessed. People have come forward from many countries: over 200 from Zimbabwe early on, around 300 from India, over 100 from Congo, a still growing number from Indonesia, Ethiopia, Central and South America, the Ukraine, and more.
Many people are planning to come from Europe, Japan, South Korea and other locations where visitor’s visas to the USA are not needed. It has truly been a humbling experience to see so many people making great efforts to come to Pennsylvania 2015!
The extra support needed for all this from US and Canada MWC church conferences has also been strong. People near to Harrisburg have opened their homes to welcome visitors. Many are donating time, food and money to support Pennsylvania 2015. And we are learning that, yes, people in this area do want to be good hosts, and are working hard to make this evident.
And lastly, concern was always there about the level of support Pennsylvania 2015 would receive from USA Embassies which must grant visitor’s visas. From early on, we were encouraged by the responses we received from officials. There was a clear level of support communicated, and a willingness to give counsel about what was needed and why these needs were there. Many other governments, needing to issue passports to people wanting to travel, also have been supportive.
We are aware that in each of these arenas (people able to come, logistic and financial support, and travel permissions and documents) many different needs and demands remain. It continues to be a major undertaking, this Pennsylvania 2015. We know that not all who want to come, will be able to. We know that the support systems within our own churches here will sometimes prove difficult.
And we know that not all who seek travel documents and visas will be successful. USA Consular Officers will have doubts and questions in some cases, and so there will be some people who are denied their application for a visa. In each of these there will be frustrations and many opportunities for misunderstandings.
But we expect, in the end, we will be having a great Pennsylvania 2015 Assembly/Reunion in Harrisburg in July.There will be good representation of brothers and sisters from around the world, who will bring the stories of their efforts needed to make this journey. We look forward to a meaningful time with the world church – and hope you plan to come too!
Article by Bob Herr and Judy Zimmerman Herr, MWC Visa Task Force Coordinators
Stories heard along the way
When asked to share examples of experiences people are having in seeking to obtain visas, the authors replied, “These are just a few stories. We have not gone into too many of the issues on why some have been denied visas as it is very hard to understand all the reasons right now in the middle of the process. And Consular Officers do not often give reasons, so we're left with peoples' speculation.”
- When one older African woman learned that her visa was denied, she refused to pick up her passport at the Embassy. She said, "No, I only need that passport if it has a visa in it to attend Pennsylvania 2015, so I will not pick it up." After some further deliberation, a visa was approved and she then picked up her document. (We are not suggesting this is something others should try – maybe only those who can present a convincing grandmotherly demeanor and spirit.)
- Some visa denials come because people include inconsistent information, such as asking for a visa that does not conform with the dates of the MWC Assembly. This may seem a small point from the perspective of an applicant, but is seen differently from an official who knows little of this person except what is presented on the application.
- The most difficult categories for visa applicants are young adults, who may be perceived as perhaps wanting to remain in the US for economic reasons, and older/retired persons who may have family to remain with after the Assembly. We encourage these folks to be ready for questions relating to these concerns. Easier visa applicant categories are people who have a record of traveling and people who are well rooted in a business or profession.
- One person, who is a pharmacist, was asked in the visa interview, "Why do the Mennonites need pharmacists at the Assembly?" His answer was convincing and his visa application was approved.
- In one case, a pastor couple was denied a visa because the Consular Officer said they had insufficient resources to make the trip to the Assembly. In that case, they are re-applying and submitting a letter from their congregation that says the congregation is funding their travel. They hope this will make a difference.